Working Longer During the Pandemic

Contrary to some expectations, Americans are logging three extra hours of work a day.

An interesting report from Bloomberg News that may come as a surprise to some bosses but not too many workers: “Three Hours Longer, the Pandemic Workday Has Obliterated Work-Life Balance.”

One must, of course, issue the caveats that those of us working from home during the crisis are lucky 1) to still have a job when so many have lost theirs and 2) to be able to socially distance rather than risk our lives and those of our families with jobs that require meeting the public.

That said, the findings are interesting:

Six weeks into a nationwide work-from-home experiment with no end in sight, whatever boundaries remained between work and life have almost entirely disappeared.

With many living a few steps from their offices, America’s always-on work culture has reached new heights. The 9-to-5 workday, or any semblance of it, seems like a relic of a bygone era. Long gone are the regretful formalities for calling or emailing at inappropriate times. Burnt-out employees feel like they have even less free time than when they wasted hours commuting.

[…]

Some predicted the great work-from-home migration of the pandemic would usher-in a new age of flexible work arrangements. As of 2017 only 3% of full-time workers in the U.S. said they “primarily” worked out of a home office in a Census Bureau survey. Then millions sheltered at home for what was originally thought to be a temporary hiatus. Many mapped out plans to fill time they would’ve spent commuting to take up new hobbies, like learning a foreign language, baking or getting into the best shape of their lives. It looked like the beginnings of a telecommuting revolution.

A month and a half later, people are overworked, stressed, and eager to get back to the office. In the U.S., homebound employees are logging three hours more per day on the job than before city and state-wide lockdowns, according to data from NordVPN, which tracks when users connect and disconnect from its service. Out of all countries that NordVPN tracks, U.S. workers had tacked on the most hours. In France, Spain, and the U.K. the day has stretched an additional two hours, NordVPN’s data found. Italy saw no change at all.

The contours of the workday have changed, too. Without commutes, wake-up times have shifted later, NordVPN found, but peak email time has crept up an hour to 9 a.m., according to data from email client Superhuman. Employees are also logging back in late at night. Surfshark, another VPN provider, has seen spikes in usage from midnight to 3 a.m. that were not present before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Huda Idrees, the chief executive officer of Dot Health, a Toronto-based technology startup, confirms her 15 employees are working, on average, 12-hour days, up from 9 hours pre-pandemic. “We’re at our computers very early because there’s no commute time,” she said. “And because no one is going out in the evenings, we’re also always there.”

One big problem is there’s no escape. With nothing much to do and nowhere to go, people feel like they have no legitimate excuse for being unavailable. One JPMorgan employee interrupted his morning shower to join an impromptu meeting after seeing a message from a colleague on his Apple Watch. By the time he dried off and logged back on, he was five minutes late.

[…]

Then there’s the fact that people have turned their living spaces into makeshift offices, making it nearly impossible to disconnect. Having an extra room helps, but not much, said John Foster, who has been home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, since mid-March doing financial compliance for a manufacturing company. His workspace is right next to the living room. “You walk by 20 times a day” he said. “Every time you pass there, you’re not escaping work.”

At this point, he even misses his commute. “Usually you have that downtime to drive home or to kind of get ramped up for the day,” he said.

Others say they feel pressure from bosses to prove they’re working, especially as the economy takes a hit and the prospect of layoffs looms. At Constellation Software Inc. in Toronto, more than 100 employees got an email from a superior that said: “Don’t get distracted because you are on your own. It is easy to get into bad habits, the lure of the internet, the endless box sets. Just think, would I do this in the office? If it’s a no, don’t do it,” read the email reviewed by Bloomberg. “You know we will be watching closely,” the same manager wrote in an earlier message.

There’s more, but you get the gist.

I’ve worked from home quite a lot since leaving the contracting world for think tankery and academia fourteen years ago. Normally, I do indeed find it more productive because there are fewer interruptions and I gain back 90 minutes I would be commuting.

But, of course, sheltering-in-place with the entire family is a different experience entirely. There are more interruptions and nowhere to escape. And my wife is, for a variety of reasons, taking on the lion’s share of the burden of managing the kids’ school-from-home needs or it would be much, much worse.

While the occasional break from the commute on a work-from-home day is nice, I do rather miss it. That’s time I used to listen to podcasts and the like and it’s harder to do that from home.

I also customarily ran as many errands as I could on the way home from work. I’m not running nearly as many under the current strictures, of course, but those few take up much more time now since I’m not already out and about.

Having had a home office for 30-odd years at this point, its very existence doesn’t pull me in. In the previous house, it was on the main floor just off from the living room and dining room. Here, it’s off the upstairs master bedroom and thus easier to escape.

To the extent I’m working more hours—and I definitely am—it’s mostly self-imposed. More than anyplace I’ve worked in the Internet era, the culture at the College is such that almost no after-hours or weekend email traffic gets sent. And there haven’t been any obnoxious “you’d better not be screwing off” emails.

But the nature of the job is that there’s always more that I should be doing. While I tend to start a bit later—right before 9, rather than beginning the commute at 7:30—there’s not much in the way of chatting with colleagues or students, going out to lunch, and the like. And I’m working later than normal, too.

One suspects we’ll adjust over time and figure out how to better manage expectations, of both ourselves and others. This is likely to be the “new normal” for quite some time until we find a vaccine or treatment for the virus.

I disagree, however, with this:

“When you’re virtual you’re less distracted—nobody’s disappearing for coffee for a while or going and disappearing to socialize,” Dave Donovan, who leads the Americas global financial-services practice for Publicis Sapient, said. “Clients are more reachable too.” Given the early results, Donovan thinks remote work is here to stay. “Once the genie’s out of the bottle it’s not going to go back.”

People are social animals. Most will want—demand, even—to go back to working in offices.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Nightcrawler says:

    On behalf of all long-time at home-workers, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all former on-site employees! I haven’t had proper work-life balance in well over a decade. It’s one of the sucko parts about working from home.

    Additionally, because I work in infosec and cloud, my business is booming. Everyone and their brother suddenly need to enable and secure an army of remote workers — often for the very first time.

    Being as everyone and their brother are also moving towards contactless pay, contactless ordering, and contactless everything else, infosec and cloud won’t go anywhere for some time.

    Get into infosec, and you will never be out of work. Not even during the apocalypse.

    6
  2. Mikey says:

    While the occasional break from the commute on a work-from-home day is nice, I do rather miss it. That’s time I used to listen to podcasts and the like and it’s harder to do that from home.

    I would spend a lot of my commute singing. Now I don’t get to sing. I really do miss that.

    2
  3. mattbernius says:

    “When you’re virtual you’re less distracted”

    I would question that in the best of times, but especially now, when there are fewer environmental restrictions on social media usage and a higher than normal background cognitive load of stress, this is a whole load of bullshit.

    You might be in front of your monitor more — and James, I totally agree about the commute thing and we were just discussing it with my colleagues who are used to Bay area commute times — but that presence doesn’t equal lack of distraction or increased productivity.

    3
  4. inhumans99 says:

    I think that a percentage of folks are not logging off the VPN when they are officially off the clock, skewing the results (most days I am off the VPN when I am off the clock). Folks who fail to acknowledge that they can give their clients an inch when the client would be thrilled if you only gave them 1/4″ of your time but you instead give them a foot w/o being prompted…well, knock that off folks.

    It is bad for your mental work from home health to set unrealistic expectations as to when your clients or colleagues can connect.

    Maybe, if you end up giving up another 30m-1hr of your workday unpaid I can see that…but 3 hours tells me folks are either skewing the results by forgetting to log-off their VPN or are gluttons for punishment by not setting firmer boundaries as to when their availability starts/ends for the day.

    3
  5. Gromitt Gunn says:

    My elderly mother lives in the guest room of my small 1,000 sq foot house and I am her sole caregiver. Not only do I miss interacting face to face with my students, but I never realized how much being on campus rather than in the caregiving space provided a needed mental break.

    5
  6. Kathy says:

    I’ve done a little work from home, but have never worked from home. I may get a chance to, if the morons at the office don’t require me to come to do esoteric stuff like opening a file or sending an email (two new projects launched today).

    My aim is to work a lot less. I think I can manage it.

    About podcasts, and audio books, I find it hard to pay attention and just listen. I’ve manged that on airplanes, but can’t do it at home. I can’t just sit or lie down and turn on Scribd and just listen. I kind of need to be able to do something else, not mentally taxing, at the same time, or my attention wonders. If I close my eyes, I risk falling asleep.

    Driving works very well for this. So do cooking and exercise. Without so much traffic these days, I think my reading time has suffered.

    2
  7. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Mikey:

    I would spend a lot of my commute singing. Now I don’t get to sing. I really do miss that.

    The rest of the people on Mikey’s bus route, however, do not. 😉

    9
  8. Stormy Dragon says:

    A tangentially related story, but one that strikes to the core if this issue:

    My current employer wants me to start doing work from home, but doesn’t want to shell out a couple hundred to get me a corporate-owned laptop to do so.

    Naturally, they’ve decided that this means they’re entitled to my personally owned computers and to installed whatever software they like on them, demand configuration changes, etc. for their convenience.

    9
  9. Monala says:

    @inhumans99: I think that’s probably the case. It’s probably also the case, especially if you have kids or pets at home, that your day is interrupted multiple times and you don’t log off during those interruptions, just make up the time on the back end. (Speaking from experience here!)

    2
  10. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Haha! Well played. 😀

    2
  11. DrDaveT says:

    For whatever combination of reasons, I feel like I am working longer and harder at home than I did at the office. WFH is kicking my butt.

    I think part of it is that I’m less productive — it’s taking me more hours of actual grind to accomplish the same amount of work. My calendar is packed now with scheduled calls/Skype/Zoom/Google Meet/GoToMeeting/etc. My ears ache from the headset. There’s no efficient substitute for those 30 second conversations in the galley, or popping your head into someone’s office for a minute.

    3
  12. JKB says:

    Slowly, actual real world data is coming to inform the response to the SARS 2.0 crisis over the original panic. From that, the reality that more than 70% of the super-spreader events (SSE) outside of hospitals and homes of the ill, have been social, work, or religious group events. These events all have the common feature “of extended, close-range, face-to-face conversation—typically in crowded, socially animated spaces.” That’s meetings in the business context. Speaking loudly, singing, yelling, these are all big Flügge droplet producers. Karl Flügge identified the spittle droplets in 1899 that we are socially distancing to protect against. One individual attended a large funeral in Albany, GA attended by 200+ others leaving 1500 cases and 108 dead in the county. Biogen’s Boston leadership meeting in Feb. being a large business event SSE, but one-on-one business meetings have also led to transmission.

    This brings into question the changes needed in offices, classrooms and other group spittle creation activities to prevent transmission.

    2
  13. Kathy says:

    Actually I plan to put much of my work at home time working, on my own writing projects rather than on my job. If, I say again, I do manage not to have to come to the office every day…

  14. @JKB:

    This brings into question the changes needed in offices, classrooms and other group spittle creation activities to prevent transmission.

    This is one of the major questions that hangs over the notion of “opening up the economy.”

    8
  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    I doubt this. My wife and I are long-time work-at-home people, 30 years, and we’re not very productive at all at the moment. I think The Onion is actually closer to the truth.

    NEW HAVEN, CT—Admitting that a highly contagious, deadly pandemic had done little to stoke his creativity, local man Michael Ayers confided to reporters Wednesday that he wasn’t sure why he had imagined the most stressful situation he had ever experienced would be the thing that finally made him more productive. “Despite my high hopes, the most devastating crisis of my life hasn’t turned out to be the catalyst I needed to meet all of my long-held personal goals,” said Ayers, who added that he had no idea what he was thinking when he told himself that being furloughed from his job and enduring a sustained period of emotional isolation would be just what he needed to start eating better, acquaint himself with world cinema, and get a jumpstart on the novel he had always wanted write. “For some reason I took a look at an economic catastrophe that may soon rival the Great Depression and said, ‘Oh great, now I’ll have the energy and the space I need to focus on my creative side.’ But I guess living with ever-present, crushing uncertainty and the knowledge that people all around me are dying wasn’t the stimulus I needed after all.” At press time, Ayers had reportedly decided that, going forward, he would instead focus all his time and attention on feeling guilty about his lack of productivity.

    3
  16. JohnSF says:

    Currently using Teams for working from home.
    Periodically *can you just shut up and let me get some work done*
    OTOH enjoying doing same in reverse!
    Lockdown crazies are kicking in.

    Several have mentioned that they’re spending more time actually working now than when physically present.
    Doesn’t always apply to me, because a fair bit of my work involved moving stuff about and warring with entropy.

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Workyperson: “Install Office 365 on your PC!”
    Me: “No. FO. Post 2003 VBA borked.”
    Workyperson: “Upgrade to Win10!”
    Me: “No. FO.”
    Workyperson: “Must to comply!”
    Me: “Gimme work laptop then.”
    Workyperson: “All staff laptops assigned by seniority to staff who aren’t actually doing anything anyway.”
    Me: “……..@~!”%&*!!!”

    4
  17. JohnSF says:

    @DrDaveT:
    Bored managers two levels up.
    Emails. Skype. Teams calls. RFC….
    JUST GO AWAY!!!

  18. Barry says:

    @Stormy Dragon: they are asking for serious trouble.

  19. Michael Reynolds says:

    @JKB:
    What? You’re not mainlining Lysol, swallowing UV lights and popping hydroxychloroquine? Does Cult Leader know you’re ignoring his sound medical advice?

    1
  20. Kathy says:

    Somewhat related, last April 10th, Good Friday, we had the day off. I had some things to finish, that I didn’t want to stay late on Thursday to do. So i came to the office on Friday, all alone.

    I figured it would take me three hours to finish. As there were no phone calls, no visitors, no coworkers, no urgen emails, no background noise from the radio, no interruptions by the boss or the many managers, I got it done in under 95 minutes.

    So I tackled some work I had slated for Monday, figuring I could get it done in two hours. 65 minutes.

    I figure as we have a light load for next week, i should get it all done within half an hour each day 🙂

    1
  21. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Barry:

    The fact my home computers all run Ubuntu instead of Windows has prevented them from doing most of the things they want to do.

    1
  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Damn. Just damn, a small damn but yeah, getting a break.

    1
  23. Mister Bluster says:

    I am retired drawing Social Security and a small monthly pension from the Electrical Workers Union.
    I also have a part time job delivering a free local newspaper two days a week and a
    Real Estate Guide once a month. My income is reported on a 1099.
    My work is defined as an essential business by executive order of the Governor.
    Before “shelter at home” my distribution sheet for the Friday route was 60 stops and the Tuesday route was about 50. Since the stops included restaurants, bars, schools, government offices, hair salons and other retail outlets the two routes have been reduced to about 16 stops each.
    The pay for running these circuits has remained the same. The time I spend on delivery is less than half what it was so I am making almost twice as much by the hour.
    Of course my pay deposits are the same and the mileage I drive is about the same so my bottom line hasn’t changed much.
    I am grateful to have the income and I will glad when this scourge has passed so I can deliver to the schools again and watch the little tykes race each other to the front door like they actually want to be there.

  24. Mister Bluster says:

    @Mister Bluster:..I will be glad when…

  25. de stijl says:

    Your employer has no right to dictate what you install on gear you bought for yourself.

    If they ship you a laptop, yes.

    Your gear? No frakking way.

    4
  26. Michael Cain says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Last time I faced that kind of problem, I told the IT folks, “I’ll be happy to run whatever version of Windows you will pay for, with any odd configuration you like, and install your software — on a virtual machine.” Much to my surprise, they were fine with that. They didn’t even ask what virtualization software I was running.

    2
  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Michael Cain: Unfortunately, virtual machines aren’t the exact same as real machines. Even after you’re tested them and supposedly everything works.

    Which I learned the hard way in law school and is why I had to write a goddamn four HOURS Torts exam out in longhand.

  28. rachel says:

    Having to work from home has made my job about 3 times harder, and my shoulders and wrists ache constantly from all the typing I have to do now to replace in-person classes with online lectures.

    On the plus side, I’ve learned to use 5 different programs and websites that I’d never used before: Impress, VueScan, Audacity, Kdenlive, Cheese + PulseAudio, Zoom… Dealing with the learning curve was stressing, but at least I’ve gained skills.

    2
  29. rachel says:

    @Stormy Dragon: What do they want to do? Maybe there’s an Open Source equivalent that’ll work.

  30. de stijl says:

    @rachel:

    Good attitude!

    When life gives you lemons, we learn skills.

    1
  31. de stijl says:

    @Kathy:

    Back when, I would always claim night-owlism and come in at 9 if I could. Just because of the blessed peace that came after regular working hours when you could work uninterrupted and knock things out. Tick off boxes.

    Most of my later career was working on projects and not on day to day operations, so meetings and phone calls and responding to the e-mail queue meant I was not being productive, not ticking boxes off my to-do list. I was being paid to deliver on a contract, and I want to do that efficiently.

  32. de stijl says:

    Bad people milk contracts for money. Drawing it out as long as possible to goose income. Hate those folks. Plus, it is a bad business model.

    Don’t rush, though, and assume you know the process. Many times the reason you are hired is spurious – it isn’t a technology problem, it is a process or structural problem.

  33. Kay says:

    I worked from home for 20 years—I had two children-girls-who attended school and the youngest was 7 years old when I started working from home in 1990. I set aside one quiet room exclusively for my home office and as far away from the activity hub of the home as possible. My first office was in a former basement kitchen 12’ x 15’. I had a large desk, and the kitchen cabinets provided great storage and lots of countertop space. I had the internet brought into the house in that room so that I’d have good hardwired speed. My office had everything I needed, including computer, printer/fax, ample storage, and a couple large carts for sorting files and mailing supplies.
    I made it clear to the children that when I was working, they should only bother me when an emergency arose—and I stuck to that rule. I set my office hours and didn’t waver much. I appeared in my office at 8 AM sharp, and I left it at about 4 PM. IF I got my work done sooner, I left early, which made up for days when I might need to work later. I found that I was much more productive because I didn’t have the normal office chit-chat and interruptions. I was fortunate to have a boss who didn’t care about the hours, only cared that the work got done timely. My work primarily involved telephone calls, reviewing medical information, and writing detailed medical reports.
    I do sympathize greatly with parents trying to work from home and teach kids at the same time—I don’t think I could have done that.

    2
  34. On balance, the technology available (video conferencing, texts, phone, e-mail, electronic forms, etc.) have made it possible to do a huge bulk of my job about as effectively as I did it face-to-face and to do a lot of it more efficiently. Not only do I save the 90+ minutes commuting, but each day save a substantial amount of time that I would have used to go to this meeting or that meeting. You start thinking about the time needed to go to meeting X (walking over from building X to building Y, waiting for it to start, walking back, the inevitable chit-chat as you leave, etc) and eventually it really adds up. Of course, sometimes real accomplishments happen during the chit-chat, so that has been lost.

    1
  35. Stormy Dragon says:

    @rachel:

    What do they want to do? Maybe there’s an Open Source equivalent that’ll work.

    Oh there is. But I’m not exactly eager to help them figure that out since, as I said, their goal here is to commandeer my personal property.

    2
  36. rachel says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Gotcha. What would be the Open Source equivalent, may I ask?

    ETA: I’m looking for anything that might make my current job easier.

  37. James Joyner says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: In the early days of this, a lot of time was wasted trying to get everyone to figure out the technology but, yes, meetings on Zoom, Google Meet, or Adobe Connect tend to go much faster than the same ones in person and there’s much less down time coming and going.

  38. @James Joyner: True–when people don’t know what they are doing, it can be a huge time suck or simply an unproductive meeting. I have been in two meetings with someone who insisted on it being an audio-only meeting with multiple participants (and we were discussing a decidedly visual issue). If we had used the right technology, it would have been a FAR more useful experience.

    1
  39. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    meetings on Zoom, Google Meet, or Adobe Connect tend to go much faster than the same ones in person

    I wish that were true, but it has not been my experience to date.

  40. DrDaveT says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Of course, sometimes real accomplishments happen during the chit-chat, so that has been lost.

    This. Also, just dropping in to chat with people when I have no specific item of business to discuss is much easier in the flesh.

  41. de stijl says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I used to work with a guy called Don.

    We were peers and responsible for different projects.

    We would use each other as sounding boards. The rules became that you had to actively listen and ask pertinent clarifying questions.

    That was not the point. In telling, you had to marshal it into a coherent narrative. Describe the desired outcome, what you were doing and why or how you were stuck.

    But is was ad hoc.

    The purpose was to describe. In describing the issue, a new way forward would often present itself.

    I learned way more about congressionally mandated financial compliance than I needed to know. He learned way more about data modeling and UX than he needed to know.

    Even though it wasn’t my purview I became quite invested in his project. His had to succeed; it was mandated. Something Boxer… That isn’t it… Googles

    Sarbanes-Oxley – that was it.